There can only be one top news story of the day. For news organizations, determining which story to lead with is a public service decision – this, whatever it is, is what the public really needs to know. It’s also a marketing decision – this story, whatever it is, will keep people coming back for more, and if they do keep coming back, that will justify higher and higher rates for the ads that play for the news operation, and then, if all goes well, generate hefty profits. Sometimes the two coincide, one can both serve the public and make big bucks, and sometimes they don’t. Pandering for profit – another story about shark attacks on a slow news week in July – seems shameful. But it pays the bills. That sort of thing keeps the news bureau in the Middle East open.
That doesn’t account for Fox News, where pandering for profit is the basic business model. Everything is an outrage. Those who wish to be outraged – a sizable chunk of the population – old and white and angry, with considerable disposable income – keep Fox News perpetually profitable. Everyone else scrambles, but this year, as March went out like a lamb, or a lion, everyone agreed the top news story was this:
The Arkansas legislature on Tuesday passed its version of a bill described by proponents as a religious freedom law, even as Indiana’s political leaders struggled to gain control over a growing backlash that has led to calls to boycott the state because of criticism that its law could be a vehicle for discrimination against gay couples.
The Arkansas bill now goes to the state’s Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, who expressed reservations about an earlier version but more recently said he would sign the measure if it “reaches my desk in similar form as to what has been passed in 20 other states.” But the bill already faces a significant corporate backlash, including from Doug McMillon, the chief executive of Walmart, the state’s largest corporation, who said Tuesday afternoon that Mr. Hutchinson should veto it.
In Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence was in a difficult spot trying to satisfy both the business interests that have threatened to punish the state for its bill as well as the conservatives who fought for the measure and do not want to see it diluted.
Mr. Pence has said he wants to modify the bill, but he has not indicated how he could do so without undermining it. He rejected claims that the law would allow private businesses to deny service to gay men and lesbians and said the criticism was based on a “perception problem” that additional legislation could fix.
Those four paragraphs cover the basics. Indiana and now Arkansas have bills that are nothing like the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act or like the subsequent religious freedom restoration acts in many other states – which exist to keep the government from unduly burdening the harmless eccentricities of this religion or that. Indiana and Arkansas decided their versions should set up protections for any party, not just religious organizations and certain corporations, to claim they don’t have to follow any law that makes that party uneasy. Everyone saw the implications. Anyone could claim the right to not provide goods and services to gays, or maybe black folks, or maybe Muslims, or maybe Jews, and the right to fire them now and never hire another, and these two new religious freedom restoration acts gave them automatic standing in court. The government would have to prove, on a case by case basis, that there was a compelling and overwhelming public interest in forcing these folks to follow the same laws as everyone else. It was a license to discriminate, not that anyone would, but it was official state permission to do so, with specific protections for anyone who said the law didn’t apply to them.
Mike Pence couldn’t explain that away. If he gets his Republican legislature to modify the bill – to say that all this doesn’t apply to public accommodations or employment practices or housing or general commerce – what would it apply to? What would be the point? And if he does that, the evangelicals and social conservatives and the born-again crowd, who have had it with these gay folks, would turn on Pence. That’s the base of the Republican Party. He can’t sell them out. On the other hand, the backlash from the rest of the nation could ruin his state’s economy forever, and make Indiana the laughingstock of the nation, and make him the next George Wallace. Asa Hutchinson may not want to find himself in the same boat.
There’s much more to this story – there always is – but this about nasty laws in only two states, and about the rest of America calling them out. It’s a local story, even if it gets people riled up. Of course it’s about our values, everywhere, which is compelling, and there is this:
Bob Vander Plaats, an Iowa conservative power broker who supports Indiana’s law, said religious liberty will be a key issue in 2016.
“No one’s going to be able to walk away from this issue,” Vander Plaats said, adding that a Republican candidate that doesn’t support the Indiana law “will not be the nominee.”
Every Republican who wants the party’s nomination has now come out and said they stand with Mike Pence. If this is a litmus test, then they are going to pass that test, and this is about more than pandering to their anti-gay base. A majority of Americans now support gay marriage. No one under thirty has a problem with gays at all. Even a slim majority of Republicans just don’t give a damn. Gay folks aren’t an issue to them. Every Republican who wants the party’s nomination knows the gay issue is over, but these religious freedom restoration acts actually change the issue. This is about everyone picking on good Christians just trying to do the right thing – casting out and humiliating sinners. What would Jesus do? He’d do that.
That makes this a bigger story, one about the government’s war on Christians, and corporations’ war on Christians, and Hollywood’s war on Christians. The secularists are out there trying to wipe out Christianity. They’re everywhere, and this calls for heroic resistance. That’s the narrative that will win back the White House. There are a lot of Christians out there. Make ’em worry. That’s why all these folks are standing with Mike Pence.
There’s also a parallel in foreign affairs:
Vowing to cancel President Obama’s budding nuclear deal with Iran is rapidly becoming a key political litmus test for the Republican 2016 contenders.
Most of the likely GOP presidential candidates have expressed concern about the direction of Obama’s negotiations with Tehran, signaling opposition to any agreement that is not ratified by the Senate or approved in some fashion by the Republican-controlled Congress. Now the party’s White House hopefuls are taking their opposition further, promising to kill the proposed accord with their executive authority, should they succeed Obama as president in 2017.
“I am challenging every Republican candidate to say the following: ‘I would not honor any deal with the Iranians negotiated by President Obama that was not approved by Congress,'” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is considering a White House bid, told reporters on Tuesday.
They’re there already:
Already on board are the three other Republican senators eying a White House bid – Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida. Four more possible GOP presidential candidates – former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin – confirmed that they, too, would be willing to kill what Obama presumably intends to tout as one of his major foreign policy achievements. Republican operatives monitoring the primary expect more candidates to follow suit.
“If President Obama signs an agreement that the Congress cannot support, our next president should not be bound by it,” Perry said in video posted on his Facebook page Thursday.
“Unless the White House is prepared to submit the Iran deal it negotiates for congressional approval, the next president should not be bound [by] it,” added Walker, in a statement issued Tuesday evening.
It should be noted that none of them can imagine any deal they’d agree to. They want more and more sanctions until Iran gives in entirely, or collapses economically and disappears. Our former UN Ambassador John Bolton – the one even a Republican Senate would not confirm and George Bush had to send up to New York on a recess appointment, and who is now a Fox News contributor – has called for cutting all the crap and just bombing Iran back to the Stone Age right now – a position John McCain just endorsed – as long as Israel does the actual bombing.
All of this is a political calculation. As with the notion that now that no one has much of a problem with gay folks, but most Americans will respond to the clear evidence that Christianity is under attack, most Americans will agree that you don’t negotiate with folks like the Iranians, you force them into submission or just bomb the bastards.
That may be a miscalculation. There’s a new Washington Post poll that finds that Americans support a deal that would lift sanctions in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program, and it’s nearly two-to-one on that. The poll asks a simple question:
Would you support or oppose an agreement in which the United States and other countries would lift major economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons?
Greg Sargent breaks down the numbers:
Americans support this by 59-31. To be sure, the poll also finds that a majority, 59 percent, is not confident that such an agreement will prevent Iran from developing nukes. But overall, the poll suggests that even if they are skeptical such an agreement will work, Americans want to try it.
Even Republicans and conservatives tilt slightly in favor of a deal. Republicans support it by 47-43, and conservatives by 46-45. (In fairness, the question wording doesn’t include Obama’s name, which could skew the results.) But it is very likely that Congressional Republicans will oppose it, regardless of the specifics. You can expect that all of the 2016 GOP candidates will oppose it, too…
Of course they will, and this may be like standing with Mike Pence:
This could prove yet another instance in which the more conservative voters inside the GOP dictate party consensus. And this would put the GOP candidates well to the right of the national electorate: The poll finds that independents support a deal by 60-33, and moderates support one by 63-26.
Of course that may not matter now:
Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program blew past a Tuesday deadline, U.S. officials said, with diplomats struggling to reach consensus on the difficult issues of sanctions, enrichment research and future limits.
The Obama administration had committed itself to reach a broad political agreement with Iran and a group of world powers by March 31, with three additional months to nail down many complex details.
The decision to keep talking suggests negotiators believe an accord in some form is still possible. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who had been planning to return to Washington if there was no agreement by midnight on Tuesday, switched gears and announced shortly before 9 p.m. local time that he would be staying at least one more day.
“We’ve made enough progress in the last days to merit staying until Wednesday,” said the State Department’s acting spokeswoman, Marie Harf, adding: “There are several difficult issues still remaining.”
That’s good, but it isn’t good:
The continuation of talks does not signal an end to the drama. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that President Obama’s patience with the negotiations is not limitless.
“It’s time for Iran to make the serious commitments that they know the international community is expecting them to make to reach an agreement,” he said.
He noted that an interim agreement in which Iran limited its nuclear output while negotiating a final deal remains in effect until the end of June. But Earnest added: “If we’re not able to reach a political agreement, then we’re not going to wait all the way until June 30th to walk away.”
Of course most of this is about American politics:
The Obama administration is trying to get an agreement with Iran before congressional critics have a chance to pass bills requiring their approval of any nuclear deal or imposing more sanctions on the country. Several bills are pending that would give Congress the option to reject a final accord.
Few lawmakers reacted publicly Tuesday to the latest developments in the talks. But Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said that the prolonging of talks into an extra day, “in the face of Iranian intransigence and duplicity, proves once again that Iran is calling the shots.” He also predicted that Obama would make “further concessions” to Tehran.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), author of a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran, said that Congress should vote on that measure “instead of another extension of nuclear talks.”
It’s a race against Congress:
In Lausanne, where the talks are being held, U.S. negotiators led by Kerry held a grueling schedule of meetings Tuesday with diplomats from Iran, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, starting shortly after sunrise and stretching late into the night. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi departed the talks to return to Beijing. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who left Monday saying he would return when a deal looked “realistic,” flew back from Moscow to rejoin the negotiations. He pronounced the prospects for an agreement “good.”
Sergei Lavrov may be dreaming:
Iran wants sanctions lifted quickly, while the world powers are holding out for a more gradual easing. The United States and its allies want restrictions to continue in the final five years of a 15-year accord that would monitor and limit Iran’s nuclear program, with research done on the country’s outdated uranium-enrichment centrifuges. But Iran wants to be free of restraints so it can introduce newer technology that enriches uranium more quickly.
The two sides are also at odds over the fate of Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium, with Tehran balking at the idea of sending the material outside the country. U.S. officials have said other options are being considered, so long as they maintain a one-year “breakout” period during which Iran would not be able to amass enough material to build a nuclear bomb. Its current breakout time would allow it to build a bomb in an estimated two to three months.
And there’s this:
It’s still unclear what form a preliminary agreement might take. Iran is opposed to what would be in effect two separate agreements. Its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has insisted on only one, the final accord, so the United States and its allies cannot “make things difficult” by challenging interpretations.
U.S. officials, who prefer a highly detailed agreement, have said they may come up with a general statement outlining the principles for continued negotiations but provide more specifics in a separate document issued simultaneously. Whatever word is used to characterize any deal, the fact that some key issues remain unresolved could make it more difficult for the administration to fend off congressional votes on additional sanctions.
And then there’s Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
“The greatest threat to our security and to our future was and remains Iran’s effort to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” he said. The agreement being negotiated, he continued “paves the way to this outcome.”
Netanyahu said Iran would be left with its underground research labs, thousands of centrifuges and a heavy-water reactor that can be used to produce plutonium, another pathway to making a bomb.
“Iran’s breakout time to have the tools to make a nuclear weapon won’t be years, as was said in the beginning,” he said. “In our estimate, it will be reduced to perhaps a year, most likely much less than that.”
Josh Marshall suggests he’s not the only one worried:
You’ve heard a lot about not only the Israelis’, but also the Saudis’ and other Arab states’ fears about this deal. This isn’t just fluff kicked up by domestic warmongers and partisans. The key is why they are so upset.
Saudi Arabia, you’ll note, doesn’t fight its own wars. We fight them. For understandable reasons, the Saudis – and other Arab states – would greatly prefer the Iranians were out of the nuclear business entirely. So does the United States, but at what cost? For the Saudis, if it means war, well, that’s what it will take. Having Iranian oil bottled up probably is not the end of the world, either. It’s not that – I think – the Saudis can be indifferent to the regional consequences of a war between the US and Iran. But making the Iranian nuclear program go away is our problem as the great power and their protector.
So anything short of that is disappointing. Not having a deal doesn’t necessarily and immediately lead to war. The Iranians are at the negotiating table because the sanctions regime, as well as the covert war of sabotage by the US and Israel, is crippling. So it is possible that if there is no deal they will come back with more concessions as they get more desperate. (But remember, while the previous administration was ‘standing tough’ the Iranians made leaps and bounds progress on their nuclear program.) At the end of the day though, the alternative to a negotiated settlement or a nuclear Iran is war. …
And remember, the Saudis don’t (or didn’t until a few days ago) fight their own wars. We do.
This is far more serious than Indiana’s new subtle anti-gay law, and Jeffery Goldberg adds this:
Those predisposed to believe that these negotiations will bring about a non-violent solution to the Iranian challenge, and also quite possibly encourage the Iranians to be more moderate in their approach to their neighbors, seem somewhat optimistic that the West will make the necessary compromises to win Iranian approval. Those who believe that the West is about to capitulate to Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, and set him on a path to the nuclear threshold seem to be praying that Iranian shortsightedness, or dumb luck on the part of the West, subvert these talks.
The more extreme positions on both sides are distasteful. The Pollyannas who not only seem to believe that Iran should be allowed to maintain an advanced nuclear infrastructure if it promises to behave nicely, but who also believe that this nuclear accord will somehow serve to convince the Iranians to moderate their approach to their neighbors and, for instance, stop sponsoring terrorism and murdering large numbers of people in Syria (among other places), are dangerous and naïve. On the other side, those who argue that no negotiated settlement will ever be good enough to keep Iran from the nuclear threshold – that only military action would guarantee an end to the Iranian nuclear program – believe that it is wise to start an actual war now in order to prevent a theoretical one later.
So, what was the top news story of the day – the situation in Indiana and Arkansas, where new laws protect discrimination and exclusion, or save Christianity from the secularists who would ruin America, depending on your point of view? Or was the top story the negotiations with Iran, which are foolish, or sensible, depending on whether you believe it’s wise to start an actual war now in order to prevent a theoretical one later? What do you need to know? What do you want to know? Maybe you don’t want to hear about any of it.